In every corner of Ireland you will hear wondrous stories of various Witches and Pookas, and the great influence that they have had on the lives of the people in any particular area. My Father, may God rest his soul, was a Tyrone man, born and reared and, when I was a young boy, we would visit many of his friends in the countryside around Carrickmore. It was during this period of my life that I was told the following story by one of my father’s oldest and most trusted friends. He told me that, not so many years previously, there was a small party of young and boisterous men who arrived in the area to enjoy several days of hunting and fishing.
Within the County of Tyrone hunting and fishing are still popular and very much loved past-times among the local country folk. But, in those days, the visit of several very well-dressed young men from the city was a rarely seen event so deep in the county’s heartland. My father’s friend told me that, at that time, there were very few visitors from outside of the county, because there were very few inns, hotels, or other facilities to accommodate them comfortably. To the locals the visit of these young men came as quite a shock, especially when it was known that they had brought their own tents and camping equipment with them. Along the bank of a small river, flowing with clear mountain water, the men established their camp just below a hill, known locally as “Sluggan Hill”. The hill itself was covered by thick woodland of mixed deciduous and conifer trees, which the local people called “O’Neill’s Planting.”
The hunting party that had come out of the city was comprised of four tall, well-built young gentlemen, who wasted very little time in erecting their tents, and establishing their campsite on the river bank. One of their number placed a kettle of water upon the camp fire and, when the water was boiled, they each had a cup of hot, sweet tea with some sandwiches before they set out on their first hunt. As soon as the hunters had eaten their fill they gathered their guns and ammunition belts before they moved across the stream into the woods, where they immediately began to seek out their prey. Stealthily, with all the trickery of a hunter, the four men moved through the trees and bushes. All the while they attuned their senses to the cry of a pheasant or woodcock, or the rush of a big, buck hare breaking cover. Onward they went until one of the men was alerted by movement in some nearby bushes, causing him to raise his gun in anticipation. Before he had raised the shotgun fully, a huge hare jumped from its cover in the undergrowth, and he fired a shot in the direction of the scampering animal.
The first shot missed, but was rapidly followed by shots from the guns of the other hunters as their sights lined up with the escaping hare coming their way. The rapid fire of the shotguns had broken the quiet of the woodland like shots from a machine-pistol, but none of the bullets hit their target, and the lucky hare continued on its merry way. These keen young men were, however, not prepared to accept anything that even resembled failure, and they immediately began to pursue the fugitive creature. They followed the escape route of that lucky hare, through trees, bushes, and the undergrowth, occasionally firing their guns as they moved along. Yard after yard they continued to chase the hare until it, finally, rushed through the open door of a small, thatched and white-washed cottage, which had been virtually hidden by all the greenery of the woodland. The cottage appeared from its condition to be unoccupied and they carried out their pursuit up to the door of the building. Just as they made ready to step through the door, they were brought to an abrupt halt when they were confronted by a huge, snarling, black dog that barred their way into the cottage.
This huge dog was a vicious black creature that resembled something which had been thrown up from the deepest bowels of hell. It glared at the men, baring its great ivory teeth, as if ready to tear them from limb to limb, and growling like the remnants of some great thunderstorm. Those glaring eyes of the great hound glowed red, like wooden embers taken from a blazing fire, but the creature itself was being restrained by a large, ringed-chain, collar around its thick neck, which was attached to a robust metal leash. There were great amounts of foam and spittle gathered around the hound’s snarling mouth as it continued to growl and snap at the unwanted visitors, increasing the very real sense of danger that they were now beginning to feel.
The man closest to the cottage door and, therefore the hound now turned towards his friends and called out to them, “Shoot that black devil!” This young man was of average stature, although he did have broad, muscular shoulders, and he differed from his friends in that he had bright, copper coloured hair. Even as he called out his orders to the others he was lifting up his own shotgun and began aim it directly at the monster dog. But, before he could raise his gun level with the target, the huge dog lunged at him and grabbed the barrel of the gun in its massive mouth’s vice-like grip. The hound’s great teeth bit into the gun barrel, chewing on it for a few moments before spitting it out on the ground outside the door. Such was the shock that all four companions suffered by this incident that they were frozen to the spot where they stood by fear. One of the taller four men came quickly recovered his senses, and immediately began to raise his gun slowly. The gigantic dog, however, was not about to allow itself to be taken unawares and it began to lunge at each one of the men, in turn, seizing their weapons in its jaws and destroying them before they could be fired.
As the last of the young men’s weapons fell, uselessly, to the ground the huge monster of a dog began to growl threateningly at the men. This was a deep eerie growl that sounded like nothing on this earth and it added greatly to their growing sense of terror. Each of the men took a step back from the door as their sense of vulnerability grew and, with the proximity of the monster to them, death seemed to them to be imminent. But, much to the amazement f the four friends, an old and bent over woman suddenly came to the door. She was almost bent double and she was dressed all in black, with long silver-coloured hair that hung limply over her face, almost covering her bright white eyes that appeared to be missing an iris. Those haunting eyes sat either side of her long, slender, crooked nose, below which her long, white, sharply pointed teeth protruded from her thin, bloodless lips.
“Just what are you doing with my wee puppy dog?” she asked the men in a shrill voice that sounded like a steel rod being dragged over a pile of broken glass.
Although he was filled with a great fear, the young man with the copper-coloured hair, hesitatingly stepped forward to speak with the old woman. “We were hunting in those trees over there, and a prize hare we were chasing escaped us by running into your house. We are sorry, but we didn’t think that anyone was living here, and we were about to follow the hare into the house until your large dog barred our way.” But, even as the young man was speaking to the old woman, the dog that towered above them both continued to snarl threateningly at all the hunters.
“Now, lie down my little puppy dog, that’s a good boy!” the old woman spoke sweetly to the monster dog. Her sweet tones appeared to calm the dog, and then she turned to the four young men and gave them an invitation. “You are welcome to enter our home, gentlemen, if it is your wish.”
Not surprisingly, none of the four young hunters were too willing to enter the old woman’s cottage and, nervously, the leader of the hunting party asked the old lady, “Are there any other persons in the house with you?”
Without hesitation the old woman answered, “There are six of us here, and we are all sisters to one another.”
“I really don’t mean to be rude, but would it be possible to see all of you?” he asked. To his surprise, no sooner had these words crossed his lips than all of the six old women stepped out of the shadows of the white-washed cottage. As the men, finally, got to see all the women together they quickly realised that all the women were, indeed, related. Each of the old women resembled the first old lady in some way, but all possessed the long, sharp teeth that protruded from bloodless lips. It was something that none of these young men had never experienced before this moment, and they were very reluctant to go into the building any further. Slowly and quietly the men backed away from the cottage into the trees and, when they reached the cover of the woodland, they turned away as quickly and as quietly as they could. Several minutes later, as the four hunters made their way between the trees and the bushes, they came upon another mysterious sight. Ahead of them lay a large, fallen tree upon which were sat seven large, black-feathered birds that screeched threateningly at the approaching men.
Now that they were a good distance from the cottage, and feeling more secure, none of those four men were about to stop and investigate. One of their number, who had a pistol beneath his jacket, pulled out the gun and began shooting at the large birds. He fired bullet after bullet at these creatures but, again, not one of the bullets found a target, and the gun’s magazine soon ran out of ammunition. Then, as he began to reload the pistol’s magazine, he was surprised to see that a very old man, with a long grey beard, suddenly appear by his side.
“Fool! Put away that gun!” the old man angrily told the young man with the pistol, and the attention of the other young men was suddenly directed towards him.
“Those creatures are not of human flesh. They are the “Witches of the Bog” and they live in that white-washed cottage that you have just left. They are held there by a spell. It is an enchantment that has held them as prisoners in this cottage for over a hundred years. As a further protection, these servants of the underworld have a massive black hound that never permits any person to enter their little cottage. They also have a great fortress that has been built under the nearby lake, and there are many people who tell stories of these witches turning into seven swans before entering that place.”
This was enough for one day and, thoroughly exhausted by their experiences, the young men returned to their campsite and prepared a meal for themselves. As they sat around their campfire, eating, they discussed all that they had been told by the strange old man in the woods. Although the men had been witnesses to several strange, and frightening apparitions they remained very dubious about the accuracy of the old man’s tale. Instead, they resolved that after breakfast the next morning they would make their way to the nearest chapel and call upon the priest, who may have a more realistic explanation for their experiences.
When they arrived at the priest’s house the next morning they found themselves being made very welcome by the elderly cleric. They began to their experiences from the previous day, and, he listened attentively to every word that they told him. The old priest, however, was as sceptical of their story as they had been of the old man’s tale. But, impressed by the fervour in which the young men spoke of their encounter, the old priest decided that he would accompany the hunters if they would return to the woodland cottage later that same day. Nervously, the four men agreed and the small party set off toward the woodland.
The old priest followed at the rear of the small group of men as they left to seek out the strange cottage once again. When they came to the cottage, at last, the first thing that the encountered was a huge, snarling, black mastiff dog, which was glaring at them with its fiery red eyes. At the rear of the group the priest gathered up his rosary beads, his gilt cross, and his small bottle of holy water, and put them out of sight in his cassock. At the same time, from one of his pockets he took out a thick book with gilt-edged pages, all of which were bound in a thick, black leather cover. Nervously, the priest opened the book and began to read some of the prayers it contained. But, just as the priest began to get into his stride, reading the prayers aloud, the gigantic hound began barking even more savagely causing the small group of men to be gripped in terror.
The wizened, bent over, old women who lived in the cottage came out from its shadows and stood defiantly at their front door. As they stood there they glared at the group of men before them and muttered curses toward them. The priest made his way through the group from his place at their rear, speaking prayers to God in a clear and a loud voice. When they heard the priest’s prayers the witches uttered a high pitched, piercing scream of pain, as though they had been struck through the heart by a spear. The scream was so loud and piercing that the men were forced to cover their ears to protect them from any damage. Despite the screams, the old priest continued to pray aloud and the old women began to transform themselves. Instead of wizened old women they became huge, terrifying, black birds like those the hunters had seen on the previous day, perched upon a fallen tree. They immediately opened their great black, shiny wings and flew up into an enormous tree nearby, the branches of which spread like a great parasol over the small cottage. Without showing even the slightest sign of fear the elderly cleric continued to approach the huge, snarling hound until he finally came within two or three feet of it. In a surprisingly swift movement this snarling monster leapt up from the ground, striking the priest with each of its four paws, and knocking him head over heels, in a backward motion. Immediately, the four hunters ran quickly to assist the priest but, as they lifted him up from the ground, they quickly began to realise that the old man was now both deaf and dumb. The dog, meanwhile, had not moved even one inch from its station at the cottage door. The hunting companions, however, were much more concerned for the health of the old priest and they gathered him up to bring him home to his own house, which stood just a few miles away. Seeing that the old priest’s strength was spent and that he was not going to defeat ‘The Witches of the Bog’, they sent a messenger post-haste to the to the local Bishop, pleading for his help in the matter.
In his large home the Bishop received the messenger but was reluctant to believe what he was being told. He was, however, very concerned that one of his own priests had been injured in the confrontation with the alleged witches. In the meantime, the news of what had happened to their Parish Priest had spread quickly through the district and the people gathered together to meet the Bishop when he arrived. Several of the leading men of the community came forward and began to plead with the Bishop to use every power that his faith could muster to rid them of these old witches. The Bishop listened to them, but lost for words to reply with, he began to doubt if he could do anything in this time, and decided to say nothing at this stage. As a Bishop, of course, he had knowledge concerning the sacramental actions that could be taken to oust the servants of the devil. In his case, however, the Bishop also had serious doubts about his possession of the necessary faith needed to succeed in such work. At the end of the meeting the Bishop stood in front of the people gathered there, and told them, “I have not the means of removing these terrible things from among you, but I ask you all if you will allow me to leave now and go gather all the knowledge that I shall need to succeed in my mission. Let me assure you all that I will return to this place at the end of the month, and I will banish this evil presence from among you.” The crowd now made way for the Bishop, who hurried off to learn what he could.
The old priest, stricken both deaf and dumb, lay in his bed nursing the injuries he had received in his encounter with evil. Unfortunately, the priest could not explain to the men around him that he now knew exactly who the old witches and their big black dog were. During his confrontation with these creatures he had been given a sudden revelation that unmasked their entire story. But, to help him explain what had been revealed to him, the old priest was handed a pen and a notepad, on which he began to write. The priest told the men that the ferocious, large, black hound was, in reality, a man who had once lived in the Parish among them, and he was known to all by the name, Dermot O’Malley. They, of course, had heard that name before, when men and women told of the man who had died in disgrace many years ago. The story of Dermot O’Malley told of how he was brutally murdered by his son because he had been found sleeping with the young man’s wife the day after their wedding. Dermot’s son was totally overcome by a great rage that gripped his entire body and made him blind to the consequences of his actions. He was determined that there would be no witnesses left to report his bloody actions and, in the bloodbath that ensued, he killed his sisters in fear that they would inform on him to the authorities.
In the meantime, the Bishop had begun to feel that he would be much safer in his own home, rather than facing down any creature that might have been sent by the Devil. Then, one night, after going to the elderly priest, the Bishop had a very disturbed night as he lay in his bed. His mind was troubled greatly by both thoughts and visions that caused him to toss and turn in his efforts to get some sleep before the daylight returned. In the dark of the bedroom the Bishop was certain that he saw one of the old witches open the bedroom door and enter the room. To suddenly see such a creature as this standing at the side of his bed startled the Bishop to such an extent that his body was overcome by a great chill as a cold sweat of fear soaked him. He couldn’t even speak to the creature, because his body felt as though it had lost control of hid faculties. The creature, however, spoke to the Bishop in a clear, though low hissing voice, “Do not have any fear of me, because I did not come into your presence in order to do you any harm. I have come so that I could pass on some very good advice to you. We have heard that you have promised the people that you shall return and remove us from our long-time home in “O’Neill’s Planting”. Our advice to you, Bishop, is that you should stay away because if you do come to do battle with us you will never leave alive.”
As the witch spoke to him, the Bishop continued to lie on his bed, very still and quietly listening to every word of the warning she gave him. He had been suddenly startled by her sudden appearance and yet he summoned every ounce of courage he could muster to answer her nervously, “I am a man of my word and I am not going to break my solemn word because of your threats.”
It was a brave response but the creature was not yet finished with him. “Listen to me, priest. We have only one year and one day left to enjoy the peacefulness of that lonely woodland bog,” she told him. “Surely a man of your stature has enough influence to ensure that they leave us in peace until that time comes.”
“I might just consider it,” said the Bishop, “but, tell me first, just how and why did you all come to be living in those woods, in the form that you have taken?”
“I will tell you that we six sisters and our father were all murdered at the hands of our brother,” she began to explain. “When we arrived at the gates of heaven, and stood before the guardian, we were told the judgement that had been passed upon us. The guardian told us that we could not pass through until we lived in this form for two hundred years. We were also told that the judgement upon us was so severe because of the great crime that our father committed when took our new sister-in-law to bed the day after her marriage to our brother. When our brother discovered the outrage that had been done against him he completely lost his mind, killing our father and all of us in his madness. The only refuge from the hardships of this world that was left to us now lies beneath the lake and we must be inside it every night.”
“I will admit that this was indeed a harsh punishment to be given to you and your sisters,” the Bishop sympathised. “But, we must all obey the will and the judgement of the guardian to the gates of Heaven. Be assured, however, I will not give you or your family any further trouble.”
“I thank you, Bishop, and we shall talk again, when we are gone from the wood,” said the witch, and she immediately vanished from his presence.
When the morning light appeared the Bishop arose quickly from his bed and dressed hurriedly, before he drove to the village. As soon as he arrived there he sent out a notice to all the inhabitants, informing them that they should gather in the parochial hall. Once the people had assembled, the Bishop began to speak to them, “It is the judgement of heaven that the magical spell that lies upon the cottage in the woodland bog will not be removed for another year and a day. I call upon all of you to keep away from that woodland bog until this period of time has ended. It surprises me that these witches had not been discovered prior to these hunters from the city arriving here. I shall only say that it is indeed a great pity that they did not stay at home in the city.”
About a week after this meeting the elderly priest was in his room, alone and resting. It was a very warm, sun-filled day and he had the window in the room open wide to allow some cool, fresh air to circulate. Unexpectedly, a small red-breasted Robin flew in through the open window, carrying a small sprig of an herb in its beak. In response, the old priest stretched out his wrinkled hand and the small bird laid the sprig of herb upon his palm. He smiled at the little Robin softly and, thinking that he had been sent a gift from Heaven, the priest ate the herb. But, almost as soon as he placed the herb into his mouth he began to feel a lot better than he had been previously, and his eyes looked upward to Heaven. “A thousand thanks to Him who is Lord of all and against whom evil cannot stand,” he prayed.
At this moment, much to his surprise, the bird began to speak. “Do you recall the Robin with the broken foot that you kindly helped two winters’ ago?” it asked.
“Yes, I remember that poor little bird well,” replied the priest. “I was so very sad when he went away as the summer came.”
“Well, be sad no more, for I am that same Robin,” declared the bird. “It is because of the love and attention that you gave to me that I am alive and well today. In return I have been able to ensure that you will not remain deaf and dumb for the rest of your life. Now, take my advice, and make sure steer clear of witches of the bog, and never tell a living soul that it was I who gave you the herb.” The old priest nodded his agreement and the little bird spread its wings and flew away from him.
An hour or two later the elderly priest’s house-keeper entered his room to discover, much to her astonishment, that he had regained both his speech and his hearing. The old priest wasted no time in ringing the Bishop to announce to him that he had been cured. When the Bishop questioned the elderly cleric about how he had been cured so quickly, the priest simply explained, “I have been sworn to secrecy, my Lord Bishop. But, I will tell you that a certain close friend of mine gave me a little herbal medicine, and I was cured almost immediately.”
Everything in the village remained quiet as the weeks passed into months, and eventually the ear expired. It was at this time, when the Bishop was alone in his study, that the door creaked opened, and in walked the witch that he had met previously. In her strange voice she told the Bishop, “I have come here to let you know that we will all be leaving the wood bog a week from this very day. But, I would like to ask you to do one more thing for us, if you are able.”
“If it is possible to do something for you that does not go against my faith, then rest assured that I will do it,” replied the Bishop.
“In a week from today there will be seven large vultures lying dead at the door of our cottage. My simple request is that you give instructions that they should be buried in the quarry that is sited on the other side of the bog.”
“Well, rest assured then, I will do that for you,” he told her and she left the room, never to return. The Bishop was not sorry to see the back of the witch but, exactly one week after this encounter, he went to the village and summoned the men together. On the morning of the next day, the Bishop led a group of these men to the witches’ cottage in the bog, where they found the huge black hound sitting by the door. The moment that the hound saw the Bishop approach with a group of men it jumped to its feet and ran off screaming as if it had been scalded. The hound drove itself into the wood and did not stop until it finally jumped into the lake. The Bishop continued to the cottage, noticing the seven dead vultures at the door, and he turned to the men behind him, telling them, “Lift those dead creatures and follow me.” It didn’t take the men very long to clear the vulture bodies and carry them to the brink of the quarry. These men were now told by the Bishop to throw the bodies into the quarry just as he had been asked to, by the old witch. But, almost as soon as the bodies of the vultures reached the bottom of the quarry, there arose from the same place seven swans that were as white as snow.
“Their penance has now been served, “sighed the Bishop, “and they have been called to their place in heaven.” From that mystical moment no person ever again saw the ‘Witches of the Bog’, or their huge, black hound.